PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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The Role of Phenomenal Character in Determining Scientifically Useful Sensory Categories

Are “qualia” a legitimate scientific explanans? In his seminal “Making Sense of the Senses” (2002), Brian Keeley asserts that if sensory qualia were necessary to individuate the senses, where the question of individuating the senses “asks how we should define the senses so as to make them scientifically useful concepts,” this “...would represent a powerful new argument for the scientific legitimacy, nay the scientific necessity, of qualia.”
Keeley appears to have a common-sense, unrestricted notion of “qualia” in mind, so to avoid confusion I will substitute “phenomenal character” for “qualia.” Intuitively, the distinctive phenomenal character of, e.g., a visual as opposed to tactile experience, is key to what distinguishes these senses. Keeley rejects this intuition. He argues that phenomenal character is a non-starter for solving both Aristotle’s problem (the problem of individuating the human senses) and the star-nosed mole problem (the problem of individuating non-human senses).
I disagree. Following Keeley (unpublished) and Fulkerson (2014) I argue that we should seek a plurality of scientifically useful sensory categories each indexed to and justified by a particular set of explanatory ends. One upshot of this pluralism is that the broadest, most general individuation criteria are not necessarily to be preferred. A further upshot is that Aristotle’s problem and the star-nosed mole problem can be handled separately. I focus on Aristotle’s problem. Functional decomposition suggest itself as a method for individuating psychological systems such as human sensory systems. According to this method, the senses are individuated in terms of their functions for the organism-- where functions can be construed both systemically and biologically/ teleologically -- and in terms of how they realize these functions (how they decompose). I argue that a phenomenological criterion is justified, indeed necessary, for solving Aristotle’s problem for two reasons: (1) The production of sensory phenomenology is itself treated as a function of the human senses by sensory rehabilitation sciences such as cochlear implant development sciences, (2) Sensory phenomenology appears to be crucial to how the senses realize their systemic and/or biological functions. Finally, I argue that the arguments (which appeal to issues related to blind-sight) Keeley takes to show that phenomenology is a non-starter for solving Aristotle’s problems fail.

Author Information:

Alison Springle    
University of Pittsburgh


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